Abortion, Ireland, and Constitutions

From The National Catholic Register:

As of this writing, Irish voters are preparing to head to the polls to cast their ballots May 25 for something once considered utterly unimaginable in the Republic of Ireland: whether to repeal the Eighth Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which would effectively legalize abortion across the predominantly Catholic country.

The Eighth Amendment was passed in Ireland in 1983 by a national vote of 67%. It recognizes the equal right to life of the mother and the unborn child, which means that abortion in Ireland is illegal unless the mother’s health is endangered … Thirty-five years later, there is massive pressure from both inside and outside of Ireland to repeal a law that has historically been supported by the Irish people.

A “Yes” vote in the referendum … will unleash a process that abortion advocates openly say will lead to unlimited access to abortions up to 12 weeks. And it will not end there, as there are plans to include a legislative provision for abortion up to approximately 24 weeks… The United States is one of seven countries that permit elective abortions after 20 weeks. (my emphasis).

In these United States, we have the 14th Amendment, passed in 1868 to address the protection and rights of former slaves, essentially declaring the former slaves to be “persons”, biological human beings with the same protections under the laws as any other biological human beings. The relevant clause is that no state shall “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” (my emphasis) Former slaves were now persons in a juridical sense, and now protected under the Constitution.

There is, of course, a difference between biological “personhood” and juridical “personhood”. A biological human being is, in a natural or common-sense use sense, a “person”. Most of us do not refer to our dogs, chickens, tractors or paint brushes as “persons”. I said, most of us don’t. Those who do are, wittingly or not, giving human characteristics to (anthropomorphizing) their tractors and paint brushes, a topic beyond the confines of this little post. Be that as it may, in what is still majority usage, a person is a biological human being.

I suspect the same was true for the framers of the 14th Amendment. They didn’t discuss unborn children; neither did they discuss the mentally ill, the aged, the terminally ill, the severely handicapped, the tax-paying fully employed adults, or any other categories of biological human being (besides former slaves). They did, I think it is fair to say, simply assume that all human beings were persons, and clarified this in a juridical sense: the framers of the 14th Amendment equated juridical personhood with biological humanhood. After all, prior to the Amendment, slaves, although considered human beings by most (not all) folks, were nevertheless not equally protected under the law. They were not fully persons in a juridical sense. That was the problem the Amendment sought to rectify; that’s why it came into existence.

In making abortion legal, the task before the Supreme Court with Roe v. Wade was to get around this little problem in the 14th Amendment. They did so by simply proclaiming the unborn human being an unperson. There is precedent, of course; after all, the Court in Scott v. Sanford had upheld the assertion that slaves were chattel, and in that sense both the rationale slavery and the rational abortion are exactly the same: there can be classes of biological human beings who do not have full protection under the law. Reflecting in detail on the implications of juridical personhood is beyond the bounds of this little post, but briefly consider this: if the Supreme Court of the United States can decide who, for legal purposes, is a person, and who is not, who else, besides unborn humans, might one day find themselves in the category of unperson? Anyone, or anything, may, or may not, be a declared by the Supreme Court a legal person depending on the whims and passions of the moment.

We have already pretty much fouled up our own Constitution. May God help the Irish on Friday, to know and understand exactly what it is that they may be doing to theirs.


PS: In these United States, of course, the slog against abortion continues. The most recent iteration is the Trump Administration’s rule to “prioritize abstinence education over contraception distribution in family planning funds.” According to Life Site News, some 20 attorneys general are suing to block this. Unsurprisingly, the Maine Attorney General is one of the twenty. I thought you might be interested.


What is the NCBC?

Una voce Maine is not a bioethics website as such. So, in order to explain why this post is diverging a bit from the Latin Mass, let me recall this tidbit from my first post:

“I do not believe that widespread use of the Latin Mass will magically fix the Church’s many problems. I do, however, believe that the Church’s many problems have their roots in two closely related facts: the collapse of reverence and seriousness in the Mass, and the collapse of robust, unambiguous catechesis ... The road back is one of ten thousand steps ... the first two steps are (1) a return to the proper public worship of God with one voice (una voce), and (2) a return to the clear exposition of His will through catechesis.”

This post is about an aspect of catechesis: applying settled Church moral principles to specific, complex, real life situations. Nowhere (except possibly marriage) do the teachings of the Church conflict with society more than at the intersection of abortion and public policy. The Church has settled teachings about abortion (and contraception) but it can sometimes be difficult to apply these teachings to the ever expanding and bewildering universe filled by the intellectual, and sometimes direct, progeny of abortion: contraception, partial-birth abortion, in-vitro fertilization and other reproductive technologies, cloning, surrogacy, embryonic stem cell research, genetic and prenatal testing, complicated pregnancies, homosexuality, gender identity and “sex change surgeries”, assisted suicide/euthanasia, end-of-life decision making, licit and illicit vaccines; the list is almost endless. Some of the things on this incomplete list may be licit under orthodox Catholic moral teaching in some circumstances, many are never licit, but all are legitimate topics for Catholic moral analysis. The purpose of this post (at long last!!) is to introduce you, discipuli discipulaeque, to what I think is one of the best go-to sources to start getting information on these often difficult topics.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center has as its role and mission the following:

Role & Mission of the NCBC 

The National Catholic Bioethics Center, established in 1972, conducts research, consultation, publishing and education to promote human dignity in health care and the life sciences, and derives its message directly from the teachings of the Catholic Church. 

There is more to the NCBC than I can possibly summarize in a short post. What I can say briefly is this:

  1. It is an established authority – recognized worldwide and most particularly by the Vatican – on matters of interpreting complex bioethical issues in the context of an orthodox Catholic moral framework;
  2. It is apolitical and non-partisan, though obviously many of the issues it deals with are intertwined with various political platforms and agendae;
  3. It is completely free-standing: although it has the endorsement of numerous prelates, Dioceses and even the Vatican, it is not formally allied with any of these;  
  4. It offers its consultative services to anyone, from large medical institutions down to the lone, worried adult child trying to figure out what to do for his dying parent, and the individual consultations are free of charge
  5. It has a huge array of programs up to and including graduate-level Certification in Healthcare Ethics (I completed this program myself a few years ago). 
  6. In addition to all kinds of educational venues for laity, there are Bishops workshops, Chaplaincy programs, and individual “preaching points” on various topics such as here and here.

To commence plumbing the breadth and depth of this tremendous resource, let me suggest starting at the tab list right up on the home page, and scrolling through the Consultation, Resources, Educational, Publications, and Public Policy tabs. There’s tons of stuff there. Who knows? Perhaps all the stuff might be move you to become a member, or buy something from the store (where you will find excellent print resources but no coffee mugs or other swag. Sorry.)

I suspect every one of us has been touched by at least one, maybe several, of these difficult – sometimes frightfully, painfully difficult – issues. I know I have. One can feel very alone, and very, very confused. The resources at the NCBC can help: they aren’t there to make you feel good, they’re there to help you figure out what’s right by interpreting, as best as humanly possible, how to respond to the difficulty in a way commensurate with Catholic moral teaching. This can be a source of great peace. 

The NCBC has tons of stuff to help priests become educated on these things. The Director of Education is himself a priest. Parishioners will come to priests seeking guidance. Priests have an obligation to be smart on this stuff; to at least have a firm basic working knowledge of the issues, and the Catholic positions.

And, yes, it’s true, even if we have dodged these various moral quandry bullets in our personal lives, the issues come up, and keep coming up, in the public sector. Maine, for example, has had two very recent attempts to pass so called “physician assisted suicide”. Both have been voted down in the legislature, but the second one (last year) failed to pass by one vote. One. I assure, you, it will be back. We are obligated, as Catholics, to get smart on this stuff.

Finally, I have no formal relationship with the NCBC, though I have availed myself of many of the educational opportunities, and have been honored to have published a few pieces in their publications. But like the stuff I put in the Stocking Stuffers back in Advent, I’m just passing along information I think might be useful. No pay per click.